This week’s Sunday Interview is a workhorse. Jeff Whitaker is an improviser and sketch comedy maestro, working mostly out of The New Movement Theater. In addition to be a tireless comedian, Jeff is a font of insights and thoughts on the art of the funny. Frankly, this is one of my favorites. We proudly present…
Years doing improv:
6 (4 seriously)
The Hustle Show
The Megaphone Show
Jeff, you are highly active in the Austin comedy scene. What drives you to do so much here?
You know, a lot of times people make the comment that I’m doing too much or spending too much time doing this “hobby” when I don’t see it at all like that. Just like with anything you love doing, you want to be doing it all the time. Comedy is so freeing. With improv, specifically, I get to let go of everything and be in the moment with a bunch of friends to create something together. The feeling of doing that and having an audience enjoy it is a hard thing to top.
Can you identify the roots of your interest in comedy/performance? What were you like—and what did you like—as a child?
I can absolutely pinpoint my comedy roots to watching Saturday Night Live with my family in the early 1990s. It was one of the few family traditions that we had early on. In fact, this sparked a period of time where I would film sketches alone in my room. My very first one was called “Jeff’s Safari” and it involved me sitting in a room with a bunch of stuffed animals and each one of them would kill me by attacking my throat. Obviously, I completely ripped this off from the famous rabbit scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
The hardest I ever laughed that I remember was watching a friend get bit in the crotch by a dog and dropping his hamburger. More recently, I think the hardest I laughed was at the last episode of The Hustle Show where Courtney Sevener was playing a creepy, nasty, book publisher. I couldn’t keep it together and it was during a show.
Who’s the most underrated performer in Austin?
I think the most underrated performer in Austin is either Vanessa Gonzalez or Cody Cartagena. Vanessa is only underrated because not many people outside of The New Movement knows who she is, but is an absolute powerhouse at sketch and improv. She’s had a lot of success touring her one-woman show. Cody is a very young performer who is a brilliant writer, a strong performer and someone I recommend everyone keep their eye on. Everything he brings to our shows just kills me because he has such a unique and distinct voice to his work. Lucky for me, both are on the sketch troupe Bad Example with me.
You do sketch and improv. How are the two similar? What do you get from each?
I love doing both because they make me exercise two very different parts of my brain for a similar outcome, if that makes sense. With sketch, I have to make sure that everything pops, that it flows in a rhythm, that it’s engaging and interesting enough of a premise. With improv, I still have to think that way but on my feet and without my scene partner or myself knowing what to do. They definitely influence each other but make my brain work differently to get laughs out of an audience.
Why aren’t you in LA or Chicago or NYC?
Believe me, I go back and forth on this so much. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that with each year that passes, Austin is becoming more and more aware of the great comedy scene it has. I went to a few Out of Bounds (Comedy Festival) shows this year, and they were so packed. It was awesome and encouraging. Combine that with the fact that stage time is really abundant here and there’re so many other creative things happening, and it’s hard to leave. I firmly believe Austin can be a city in the same conversation as LA, Chicago, and NYC. We just need some more time.
What makes something funny?
Personally, what makes something extra funny to me is when you take a grounded situation or a realistic scenario and start from there. Comedy grounded in reality is something that is so rewarding to me. With improv troupes, I am much more engaged in comedy that starts off very real and relatable. Recently, I did a show at ColdTowne Theater called Kaleidoscope and that format is so much of what I love. It starts in a realistic setting and then you explore from there. Mmmmm mmm.
Can funny be taught?
I will answer this through a series of flip-flopping.
I don’t know that funny can necessarily be taught, but a lot of aspects of what makes something funny can be. For instance, I used to do improv with this person who was pretty dry—not a funny person at all really. This person reacted so realistically and their fundamentals were so sound that they drew huge laughs because they were the voice of reason in the scene. They were the model of a straight character and people would say, “You were so funny in that show,” but they really weren’t doing anything specifically funny. It’s also hard to teach funny because what is considered funny is different from person to person. I do think funny can be unlocked through confidence and given the freedom.
I said “funny” a lot.
If you were going to try to teach funny, what would the first three chapters of your manual on comedy be titled?
Chapter 1: Don’t Try to be Funny
Chapter 2: Be Patient. Earn the Laughs
Chapter 3: Spinning Bowties
Do you have an improv pet peeve?
There’s a lot of little pet peeves. One of the biggest to me is breaking the integrity of the scene to make a pun. Maybe this is a pet peeve of mine because I suck at making puns. The other huge one to me is when people don’t remember names. It’s not even so much as not hearing or remembering it, because hey, that happens to the best of us. To me, I really dislike when people don’t remember and then take a wild guess. If you don’t remember the name, you don’t have to say it!
What makes a good improv coach/director?
I always appreciate being direct. I think a tendency sometimes is for coaches and directors to be overly positive and to not address the issue. I may be in the minority on this, but I really like a director or coach who cuts through the BS and points out what needs work. I remember when I did Dave Buckman’s Advanced Workshop (highly recommended), on the first day, he made a note that I have been working on since. He said, “You treat each scene like a sketch. Stop trying to think about where it needs to go and just react.” That helped me tremendously and even though I wanted to be defensive, it made me better.
Anything you want to plug?
I perform improv weekly with Good Fight and the Megaphone Show, but the specific thing I want to plug right now is what Bad Example is doing. We are performing a brand new sketch show every single Saturday at 9:00 pm (at The New Movement theater). No repeat shows and it’s a full hour.
Here’s a neat promo video, too:
What’s something that most people don’t know?
I don’t think a lot of people know that I graduated from college with a degree in Nursing and now work at a tech company. Yay for life changes!